Wrongly Directed Zeal

St. Isaac the Syrian speaks of two kinds of zeal.  In homily 51 he speaks of a “sick” zeal, a “wrong” zeal.  And in homily 55 St. Isaac speaks of zeal as a “watchdog” and “shield” of the soul.  However, to say these are two different kinds of zeal is not quite correct.  Both find their origin in the natural, “incensive” faculty of the soul.  This is an old English word that comes from the Latin meaning to enflame—in fact, the noun, incense comes from the same word.  In contemporary English we still use cognate words such as ‘incendiary,’ as in the sentence, “A bomb is an incendiary device.”  We also use the passive verb, ‘incensed,’ as in the sentence, “She was incensed by their rude remarks.”  The incensive faculty of the soul is that aspect of our selves that is stirred up, or enflamed, so as to motivate us to action.

When the incensive aspect of our soul is sick, when we manifest what the Greek translators of St. Isaac call “wrong zeal,” we “send forth [our] zeal against the maladies of other men.”  In other words, when we rebuke others, when we presume to correct those who have not asked for our help or who have not otherwise been entrusted to our care, especially if that rebuke is accompanied by an certain heat, or energy, when we rebuke and correct others in zeal, then we are acting out of a disordered passion, we are manifesting sick, or wrong, zeal.  This is sick because the incensive faculty that has been given us for the labouring of our own soul’s health, we have turned outside ourselves in sending out our zeal against the sickness of others; and thus “[we] have expelled the health of [our] own souls.”

The English translators of St. Isaac’s text provide a note suggesting that an appropriate English word for this kind of zeal, or rather, this misuse of zeal, is “fanaticism.”  Another word that comes to my mind is “fundamentalism.”  St. Isaac says of this sick zeal that it “is not reckoned among men to be a form of wisdom, but as one of the maladies of the soul, namely narrow-mindedness and deep ignorance.”  Fanaticism and/or fundamentalism misuse the zeal God has given us to change ourselves but instead direct it outwardly onto others.  It is narrow-minded because it’s energy comes from what it sees as wrong or offensive in others, ignoring everything else that is important.  That is, in seeking to correct what is perceived as an error in another, sick zeal forgets the person.  It is fundamentalism in that it sees one issue (or a small group of issues) as so important that it cannot see the bigger picture, it cannot see the human person who needs love and care despite his or her sickness.  The person who is motivated by sick zeal is more interested in making it clear exactly what is wrong with the other, than in actually saving the soul of the other (and, St. Isaac points out, in saving his or her own soul).

If we are really interested in helping others who are sick, who are in sin, and who have fallen, then St. Isaac tells us, “know that the sick are in greater need of loving care than of rebuke.”  I have met very few people who have fallen into sin and who do not already know that they have fallen into sin.  Their own conscience is rebuking them.  They don’t need more rebuke, they need loving care.  But instead of helping others by showing them loving care, we—driven by the passion of sick zeal—we feel the need to rebuke, and end up not helping the one we rebuke, but rather “bringing a grievous disease upon [our]self.”  “The beginning,” St. Isaac tells us, “of divine wisdom is clemency and gentleness, which arise from greatness of soul and the bearing of the infirmities of men.”  St. Isaac then quotes the scripture for us: “For, it is said, ‘We that are strong out to bear the infirmity of the weak,’ and ‘Restore the transgressor in the spirit of meekness.’  The Apostle numbers peace and patience among the fruits of the Spirit” (Rom. 15:1; Gal. 6:1; Gal. 5:22).

And so it is in actually bearing the burdens of others, bearing with the infirmities of the weak, not in rebuking them, that we save both others and ourselves.

St. Isaac seems to suggest that perhaps the real problem, the reason why we give ourselves to sick zeal in the rebuke of others is that we lack genuine sorrow.  Instead of being sorely grieved in our heart at the weakness, the sickness, of others, we give reign to our own senses, particularly our misdirected zeal in the form of anger.  This “sorrow of mind,” St. Isaac says, “is a precious gift before God; and he who bears this gift as he ought is like a man who bears holiness in his members.”  However, “A man who unleashes his tongue against other men, whether over good matters or evil, is unworthy of this grace.” We cannot acquire the sorrow of mind that “is a precious gift before God,” until we control our tongue, reign in our senses, and allow sorrow to dwell in our heart as an offering, as a precious gift before God.

It is so easy to see what other people are doing wrong.  It is so easy to see for others what would be better, what they should do or should have done.  This is particularly the case when it comes to failure, when it comes to sin.  We want to rebuke and condemn.  We want to apply canonical penances, to excommunicate, to make it clear that this or that sort of thing is not acceptable in the Church.  St. Isaac likens this to the demand for justice.  We want God to act in His justice—forgetting that if God were to act even for one moment in justice rather than mercy, we would all be condemned.  We forget, St. Isaac tells us, that “As a handful of sand thrown into the great sea, so [in comparison] are the sins of all flesh…with the mind of God. And just as a strongly flowing spring is not obstructed by a handful of dust, so the mercy of the Creator is not stemmed by the vices of His creatures.”

But what then of those who have sinned?  Are we to say nothing?  St. Isaac says that it is better, if our own soul is sick with anger, with misguided or sick zeal, it is better to say nothing but to learn to cultivate sorrow in our heart and mind as an offering that is precious to God.  It is better to save our own soul than to give place to our outwardly-directed and thus sick zeal.  As St. James puts it, “The anger of man does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20).  But if we are spiritual, that is if we acquire genuine humility and meekness, both of which are the fruit of properly directed zeal, zeal directed toward my own repentance; then, perhaps, if it is our responsibility as pastor or teacher or parent, then with a heart and mind full of sorrow we may be called upon to restore the transgressor, as St. Paul says in Galatians 6:1.  But if we are not spiritual, if we struggle with anger and crave justice or if it is not our responsibility, or calling to speak, then we will do more to save both our own souls and the soul of our fallen brother or sister, if we focus on “loving care” and leave the rebuking to the Holy Spirit.


  1. Once again a very timely blog. I just spent time with a good friend who is facing trials with her grown children. I was so tempted to judge them and I am sure I made a few unhelpful comments. Thank you so much for this. I have been thinking about the passage ” judge not and you will not be judged” . This gives me lots to contemplate.

  2. Thank you Father so much for this thoughtful words!
    From my experience I have learned that whenever I have acted in “sick zeal” I’ve done only harm to my soul and to the soul of the person as I was supposed to help or “correct”.
    One of the greatest dangers and temptations that I’ve encountered since I’ve become more diligent in tending my heart and soul, and taking care of my spiritual life, is precisely this, the spirit of criticism, becoming a christian Pharisee……..and most of the time the hook is some kind of “good intention” or how to “improve” certain things…….

    Thanks again and God bless you,


  3. Thank you Father for insightful words. I have been thinking a great deal lately about the temptation to judge in context of the social war raging in our society. It seems we as Orthodox Christians are judged for our – I fear largely unpopular – beliefs that come directly from the scriptures. Your writing serves to remind me the road we travel requires us to anticipate and accept rebuke (judgment) by others with humility and meekness. Unfair judgement by others does not release us from “judge not lest we be judged” holy words.

  4. I wonder about your use of the word “fundamentalism”. It is a word that has roots in a very particular protestant theological milieu and often misapplied to other subjects (such as Orthodox theology). It has now been appropriated by many for all sorts of reasons. At it’s worse, it is used in that very political sense – like saying “your an unreasoning neanderthal” or “your a bigot”. In the Orthodox world, it is misused by those who would reform the Church’s normative moral theology around sexuality and anthropology.

    I say all this to simply point out that the word does not help in making the spiritual distinctions around anger/zeal that you and St. Isaac are pointing to…

    1. Dear Christopher,
      I use the word “fundamentalism” in the sense of narrow-minded ignorance mixed with religious zeal. Specifically, narrow-mindedness refers to the tendency to look at one or a small group of issues (even very important issues) while ignorance refers to the ignoring of other more important issues—-such as the things Jesus actually told us to do. Perhaps the word “fundamentalist” is not the appropriate word to describe this. It’s just the word that came to my mind.
      As far a those who would reform the Church’s normative moral theology around sexuality and anthropology, I wouldn’t know anything about that. I think the Church’s tradition is quite clear on that score. Nevertheless, just as the religious leaders at the time of Jesus strained out the gnats and swallowed the camel, I sometimes wonder if the U.S. culture war hasn’t got many of us (myself chiefly) spending a great deal of energy swatting at gnats while sipping camel tea. But I don’t know, I just sometimes wonder.

      1. Father,

        I would like to believe that our cultural (putting aside a “war” within it and whether that applies to our subject) is, at a minimum “left out in the narthex” but that is simply not reality. Like yourself (if I understand your parish situation correctly) I am in a small “mission” parish made up of mostly of converts who have a largely conscious relationship to our culture and faith so it is (largely) free of this. However when I travel to our jurisdictions (not the same as yours) more established parishes in the NE or go to our sobor, well there is a real and palatable sense of this divide (i.e. a difference in theological anthropology). Certainly in the typical NE parish, I would not be exaggerating to say that at least half of those standing next to you during the service (and certainly the majority of those 40 and younger) in no way have an even nominally Christian (let alone Orthodox) understanding of our humanity, our sexuality, etc. For them, the Church’s understanding of these matters is an anachronism of a by gone era at best – for many of them it is a “fundamentalism” – they have appropriated the secular cultures understanding(s).

        As for your use of the word fundamentalism, I understand what you are saying. It’s just that I wonder if the term should be used at all in the cultural context of today. It is similar to the word “ignorant”. If you look up the dictionary definition, it is a perfectly good word as it simply means “unaware” and you and I are both ignorant about a great many things and would not be offended or confused by the term. However in our current cultural context the word is hopelessly confused with certain modern connotations, particularly of the political sense where this or that group is “ignorant” and my tribe is not, etc. Now that prominent and widely know Orthodox commentators are (mis)using the term in an intra-Orthodox context, I simply don’t believe the word does much more than cause a distraction. In other words, its use is simply putting a magnifying glass on certain gnats. Just an opinion obviously…

      2. I enjoyed your post, Fr. Michael, and I appreciate its message. Like Christopher mentioned above, however, the misuse of the word “fundamentalist” does detract from the point you are making.

        Traditionally, fundamentalism is/was a movement within western Christianity in opposition to heretical and erroneous doctrine. Fundamentalists firmly believe there are simply some things about Christianity that are untouchable, and that these things are “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. They include the virgin birth of Christ, his actual bodily resurrection, the historical reality of his ministry and miracles, his divinity, divine inspiration of scripture, etc.

        While there have doubtlessly been a multitude of fundamentalists who have misdirected zeal (I live in the southeast USA, so believe me, I know), there have also been countless Orthodox Christians over the millennia who have had the same “sick zeal.” I would hate to see the word “Orthodox” used in a pejorative manner, so I try to refrain from misusing other labels in a narrow manner.

        Many fundamentalists, like good Orthodox Christians, quietly live their faith without causing any stir. It’s always the loud ones that get our attention, though 😉

        1. Dear Jeremiah,
          Thank you for your comment. I would not like any term that someone identifies with to be used in a pejorative manner. Please forgive me. Nevertheless, nowadays I hear the term “fundamentalist” used to describe Muslims and even politicians. The broader English-speaking world seems to have given a broader definition to the word than it originally had in the 1920s and 30s. That more contemporary definition was what I had in mind. Again, please forgive me. No offence was intended toward any specific group except those of us Orthodox Christians, like myself, who sometimes misdirect our zeal in narrow-minded and ignorant ways.

          1. No worries, Fr. Michael. No offense was taken at what you said, and I felt you didn’t mean it in an offensive way. You’re right that our society uses the word “fundamentalist” in a multitude of ways. In fact, it has become so broad that I think it has lost most if its meaning. Much like the word “conservative.” If I told people I’m a conservative Christian living in the South, some people would probably assume that I hate gays, I protest at abortion clinics, and that I have a gun rack in the back of my pickup truck (none of which is true).

            All of that is to say that when we as a society misuse words they eventually become so convoluted that they are meaningless in conveying any specific point. Unfortunately, we’re all quite guilty of doing that, myself included! Admittedly, “fundamentalist” is one of my pet peeve words 🙂

        2. Jeremiah,

          I was raised in a small city in the southern USA. I knew REAL fundamentalists growing up, a few were close friends. Today, when I see the term being applied by the secular culture/media to anyone who holds to some non-secular/modernist understanding, or closer to home when I see it being applied by certain folks within Orthodoxy to other Orthodox I cant’ help but think of Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride who famously said:

          “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

  5. Dear Farther Michael, I am a Christian, although not Orthodox. I just wanted to thank you for your post. For the pastime week I’ve been asking Jesus about the anger that seems to flare up whenever I am confronted in my daily life with views about matters of faith that goes against what I believe scripture teaches. Thanks to your post I now know. It has blessed me greatly.

  6. I can’t argue about any words being used in this article, I have trouble just understanding the use of the English language among Americans in General. I still look up words. But most important I’ve learned to read between the lines and be sensitive to the message all the words are trying to convey. I personally needed to read this message/essay. and I say “Thank you”.
    I was at my son’s in Portland Or. recently and watched this sick zeal in actions. It was directed toward me and his disapproval of my Christianity, the way I raised him and how I needed to change along with my European thinking/culture coming originally from Germany. Needless to say I was crying and heart-broken. He just retired a few years ago after 22 some years being a Navy-Seal, and I don’t know what happened to him, he change so much. I took it all in and left Portland saying good bye. But once at home I had to take it all apart. He took 2 years of Psychology to figure his own problems out (which he admitted) and used most of his knowledge to tear me down instead using it to get the help he needs in adjusting to civilian/marriage/family life. I was the calmer during the conversation we had, but also realized that I could not take this abuse. I prayed for God to help us and to have Mercy, because I do not want him suffer from his pains and at the same time did not want to be victimized either. I did find my peace once back home and thank God for answering my prayer – word of truth and separation. I hope he finds the help he needs and want to ask all who reads these lines to please pray for him (Joel), to find his Way in God to himself. Thank you for doing this, because I am standing alone in this too and need all the help for him I can get. I am not Orthodox, but God has been our Rock and Salvation thru many Generations of war in Europe, or I would not stand and write here today in English. So please forgive me for my ignorance of the English language, but God gives us enough to convey our needs, thankfulness, learnings, gratitude and hopefulness for our lives. In Jesus name I pray…Amen

    1. Dear Maria,
      May God have mercy on Joel and grant him peace. I hope and I pray ( and truly expect) that in time he will find balance and peace. Keep loving him and praying for him. Forgive what he says in his confusion and inner pain.
      Fr. Michael

    2. Maria,
      My heart goes out to both you and your son. People are praying…I am. And I agree with Fr. Michael that in time your son will find that peace. We don’t know how our great God does these things, but love, prayer and faith from the depths of our heart … God hears this. His love through us is the cure, the healing for Joel.
      As for having trouble with the English language, I still do, and have to look up words, and I’m 61 years old and born and raised in America! Plus you have the advantage of knowing two languages, something that was not “important” in our generation.
      Keep pressing forward Maria and know you are not alone.


  7. Hi Maria,

    I just wanted to say to you to have Faith, faith and only faith……..your son will find God, or better saying he will be found by God in the right time…….the Holy Spirit works in mysterious ways, unpredictable by us……….but some are “workers from the third hour, some from the ninth, and some others just come in the eleventh hour……”…..keep praying for your son and have unshakable faith in the Lord.
    May the Lord grant you peace and courage and enlightenment to your son.

    God bless,

  8. St. Isaac’s and your description of “sick zeal” describes something that is a constant struggle for me–both in myself (the inner critic is strong) and in the culture of a part of my extended family. It is particularly hard to see or overcome when you were raised in a culture that not only did not recognize the profound misdirection of this sort of mindset, but encouraged it or even demanded it in the name of fidelity to “God’s holy standard” or some such notion. It becomes very damaging. It ensnares people in the prideful delusion of being more “spiritual”, “enlightened” or “righteous” than others, when in reality they are in the grip of a powerful and deeply destructive demonic stronghold.

    Though I share a sympathy with and profound respect for the intent and many of the convictions of the historic Fundamentalists of the 1920s and ’30s with others who have commented here, I don’t agree with them your use of “fundamentalism” to describe this fanatical mindset is out of place (though, I understand why this might be distracting for some). First, this is because language and the meaning of words (whether we like this or not) are continually evolving, and this word, when it is not capitalized, is in its most common sense today, referring exactly to this sort of misguided fanatical and judgmental zeal. Sadly, I believe we must also acknowledge the pejorative sense of this word has been well earned by a rather sizable (or at least vocal) minority within some groups who proudly and loudly point to their roots in (and singlular fidelity to) the historic Protestant Christian Fundamentalist movement. Meanwhile, a culture of the most heartbreaking spiritual, sexual, psychological, and physical abuse of wives and children (even to the point of resulting in the injury and death of very young children) has recently come to light and been exposed in at least three groups matching my description of this vocal minority in more recent times. Any read of someone raised in that culture attempting to put the pieces of their life back together and writing about their experiences on the various “Recovering Fundamentalist” sites in the Internet can show what a shipwreck this abuse has made of the faith of many now not so “little ones.”

    May God, indeed, preserve us from such “sick” zeal!

    1. Karen says:

      “…is in its most common sense today, referring exactly to this sort of misguided fanatical and judgmental zeal.”

      We will have to agree to disagree about this. By far the most “common” use of the term is by the secular media and secular minded persons to describe others with whom they disagree whether they are fundamentalist in the way you are using the term, or simply traditional Christian/Jews/Muslims/any non-modern thinker. Indeed, I have seen quite modern/liberal protestants also labeled as fundamentalists simply for adhering to some small sliver of Christianity. As you say, the meaning of words can be a slippery and changing thing (though not necessarily). Now that some in the Church are trying to define an “Orthodox Fundamentalism” and using this label for those us (and I am certainly in this category) who do not want to join the (modern) effort to reform the Church’s normative anthropology, I think you have to ignore your own perception of the fluidity of meaning to assert that the term has propriety. I suppose in certain contexts that allow for an agreed upon understanding the term is fine, but is an internet blog really such a place? In any case it is a prudential matter and I have said what I think and will say not more about it.

      By the way Karen, I hear you as to the meat of your post and join with you in your prayer – may He preserve us!!

      1. Christopher, I would tend to agree with you this label is often misapplied in our secular media, etc., as you say. Still, the question is about what the word means in the common sense, not about whether that meaning is properly applied by our secular media these days. The word means what it means–we can’t help it that the media uses it indiscriminately to slander certain groups (disturbing as that may be–and it disturbs me, too), though it may aptly describe others. It is disturbing when this word is misused, but my contention and my point in my initial comment is that in my opinion Father is not misusing it here.

        1. Christopher, having just checked the dictionary, I have to backtrack a little here (not an uncommon experience for me as an ADD sufferer!). If you look at the second definition of “fundamentalism” in the Merriam-Webster online dictionary (the way the media appears to be using it), it means a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles and in terms of what those principles are would vary from group to group. Even atheist materialists can be “fundamentalists” in this sense, though it is more commonly used of varieties of religious fundamentalism. If this is how the media is using the term, barring other issues we should have no objection. (The first definition of “Fundamentalism” in Merriam-Webster relates to the historical Protestant movement.)

          That the word sometimes carries a pejorative connotation (regardless of which formal definition is intended, and, undoubtedly, sometimes even where only a neutral sense is intended by the one using it) is acknowledged in Wikipedia’s encyclopedia description. It would appear what you are decrying is this conflation, here underscored by Fr. Michael’s association of this word as a modern synonym for “sick” zeal. I agree the knee-jerk cultural conflation does muddy the waters significantly and is often undeserved and unfair as regards those who could fit the formal definition. On the other hand, as I pointed out, the ones who have earned the pejorative sense are the most vocal and visible (and destructive) which makes for the kind of news that sells, unfortunately! Because of this, I can’t fault those who have learned to associate the term with very antisocial behaviors. This certainly makes “grist for the mill” for our ascesis that we must bear the cross of the negative fallout of the “sick” zeal of some (and even, it must be acknowledged, sometimes our own).

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